My Comic Life Sundays: Penciling 101: The Layout

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My Comic Life Column 017: Penciling 101 The Layout

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Last time I started to really get into this series on penciling by going over the basics, including tools of the trade, setting up safe, bleed and trim zones, etc. It was essentially focused on logistics and materials.

This time I’m going to start talking about the first and most important step in actually creating a page of comic art – the layout.

Anyone who’s done art on any kind of regular basis has learned the best way to start is to sketch, loosely and lightly, in order to get a feel for the image. Starting with a light, loose sketch allows the artist to frame out the image, get proportions and anatomy, as well as perspective and lighting roughed out to then build on. It’s essentially a ‘feeling out’ stage where the artist can explore options, angles, composition, etc. Keeping it light if using pencil and paper, means you can erase and make changes easier.

Now, some artists, after they’ve been doing this work for years, even decades, layout and then jump to more finished versions pretty quickly. Others of us struggle a bit more at this stage, trying to get the exact look we want. Every artist sometimes hits a total wall on a given piece and will wrestle with it to no end. Doing all this in simple layout sketches means saving a lot of work once you decide you need to change something.

I’ve included two samples below of my own layout stages for a couple pieces of art. The first set is a cover I’m doing for a short story, the second set is an art print of Wonder Woman for an upcoming event.

As you can see, each successive layout I shift elements, tighten linework, add details, sometimes scrapping a part of the work and starting over, sometimes really defining those parts that are working well.

So, it should be pretty clear that this process really is a process of composing the image – from the basics like getting the proportions and anatomy right (as mentioned above) to the finer elements of framing the main focus of the image, creating elements to guide the viewer’s eye, etc.

Now, the simpler the image, the easier the layout. A quick head sketch is pretty simple to setup and start rolling pretty quick. Make that a full body sketch, little more effort at this stage to get limbs and body in proportion, moreso if that body is at an extreme angle needing foreshortening etc. Add a detailed background? More characters? More effort. Now, take all those elements for a single picture – turn that picture into a panel – and make a page of 6, 8, or 12 panels. Hopefully, you’re starting to see how important the layout stage is to crafting a good comic page.

The layout is when the artist is creating the single most important element of the page and that is the storytelling. Remember, in an earlier column, I spoke about amazing artists who then try their hand at comics and don’t do well? A large part of that is a failure to take into account storytelling from the very beginning, starting with the layout of the page.

Getting the Lay of the Page

Now, if you’re working with a full script, the basic layout of the page has already started in the process of the writing – in other words, your script will dictate, basically, the number of panels for any given page. The number of panels can vary from 1, what is more often called a SPLASH page, to 3 stacked, to 4, 6, or 8 panel grids, or more. Some can use very basic layouts, others more complex. A well-written script will be sure to have the story pace accordingly with the number of panels, for example:

SPLASH pages should be scenes worth that full page. They should be great establishing shots to establish scene or mood, great action shots, or critical turning points of the story worth the space and focus.

From there it becomes a fairly simple inverse relationship based on two key content elements: text and art. If there is a great number of specifics needed in the art to show scale or the full complexity of the action (say a city being ripped apart, or two super-teams clashing), or if there is a lot of text, dialogue, captions, etc. then that panel needs to be bigger. If there are fewer elements of art and dialogue (say a headshot of a single character saying a single word) the panel can be smaller.

Again, if you’re dealing with a full script, its important your writer be thinking through this as well (as they learned during the Writing 101 series), but, ultimately, it falls on you as the artist to translate that script to art. In doing so, you may decide the panel count needs to change, or feel part of a given page needs to be pushed to the next page to pace and balance better. These are issues it’s fair for an artist to bring back to a writer, and ones a good writer should listen to from their artist.

Once you start picturing the general content of the panels on any given page, the next important piece to bring into the mix quickly is how you want to then arrange those panels on a page.

Keep It Simple – OR – The Stack and the Grid are Your Friends

To the side are several examples of typical page layouts pulled from the work of Jack Kirby.

As you can see, they show a range of not only panel counts, but how those panels are arranged.

But perhaps the most noticeable thing is also the most common thing about each of these: they are all fairly simple, blocked panels in simple stacked or grid layouts.

A stack is when panels stretching the width of the page are placed one atop the other, like the upper left image of three panels.

A grid is when smaller square or rectangular panels number across the page, then are in tiers down the page, with the most common being the classic six-panel grid seen at the lower left position.

Now, while having complex panel layouts may look cool, I usually strongly recommend artists just starting out in comics do more basic layouts. The reasoning is very simple – a basic stacked or grid layout means your storytelling will absolutely be clear and easy to follow as far as this stage is concerned.

Again, that is the single most important element of a sequential page of art, that the story flows easily for the reader and they are able to naturally and automatically follow through the proper sequence of panels to see the story unfold and enjoy it.

Those complex layouts you see by more accomplished artists that can blow your mind are actually incredible masterpieces of pacing, order, layout and composition in order for them to work. If you haven’t fairly mastered all those skills and try a complex panel layout for some ‘cool effect’ chances are you’ll end up losing a reader somewhere in the midst of it, and that will knock them out of the story and instantly be a turnoff to them.

Variety Really IS the Spice of Life (and Comics)

A final thing to mention this round, and we will come back to it later, is that it’s also important to vary your page layouts. Now, obviously, again, your script will hopefully include a good bit of variety in pacing and panel counts already, but you may find a good run of 4-6 panel pages, which is the general average. If all you do are basic grids, page after page, that’s going to get visually boring to a reader. Pretty much any kind of repetition, even at a basic layout level, becomes distracting and boring. So, add variety where you can. Maybe one 4 panel page would work better with slimmer, wider panels in a stack. Or a 6 panel page can use some varied panel sizes to shift the grid lines (as shown above).

NEXT

We’re going to continue focusing on layouts but start adding in actual composition of the art in panels and look at how artists can use layouts to add a lot of strength of story in the art as well as the basic panel setup.

Resources

Printable Paper has a number of basic comic page panel layout templates you can download for doing layouts and practice.

NOW DISCUSS…

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Creative Services, one of the best-known production studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycreativeservices.com!

My Comic Life Sundays: Penciling 101: The Basics

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First, in case you missed our Weekly Visions Post this week, I announced a new, semi-regular time to Get Together and Get Creative. Thanks to a cool new partnership with the Smithsonian IMAX, we’ll be turning select new releases and special showings into Visionary films – I’ll be attending the show, and those wishing to can join me for an informal roundtable discussion on the merits of the movie afterward. Our first one kicks off January 29th at 5pm. Get all the details here>>

Hope to see you at one soon!

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My Comic Life Column 016: Penciling 101 The Basics

C. Edward Sellner cropped

Last time I did a quick ‘sketch’ of penciling comics in general. This time I want to start digging into the topic and getting more concrete on specifics.

But before I do, let me put out two reminders that bear repeating:

First, the 101 round of series on each stage of creating comics is aimed at the basics, for beginners, just as I did with the writing series. So, a lot of what you read here may be stuff you’ve heard already if you’ve been at this any length of time, but, I try to include some pointers and tips I’ve picked up that will hopefully still make it worth your while even if you’re a pro.

Second, very little of what I share are hard and fast rules (though there are those as well). A lot of ‘creating’ is open to any number of options including tools you use, size you draw at, stylistic choices, etc. My goal is to share some of the most common used approaches and techniques for you to use or not as you wish, but are especially helpful if your goal is to produce work that may lead to you getting hired in the industry.

Tools of the Trade

9581209To do pencil artwork all you really need is a pencil and some paper. Once you start, you’ll probably soon after need an eraser, trust me. But if you want to start working to the norms of the industry you’ll start fine-tuning that process pretty quickly.

In fine-tuning that process, the first step is making sure you are producing art that fits the standard specs for whatever kind of comic you plan on doing. Now, again, lots of freedom here to just create stuff, but if you plan to submit this comic for print or digital release, or do it yourself, then you need to be more intentional in how you approach this.

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Most print comics are printed at a 6.875″ x 10.4375″ size, but the original art for those sized pages are most often done on 11″ x 17″ sized paper. For printed art of most any kind, it’s pretty standard for an artist to work on anywhere from a two to three times larger size space than the final printed format. The reasoning here is simple – the amount of detail you see in a printed comic page would be hard to include if the work were being created at that size. The additional advantage is that any small mistakes that creep into finished art at a larger size are even more reduced and fade out when the art is printed smaller.

Some artists work on different sized paper, to begin with, which is fine, but what is critical is that the ratio relationship stays the same so the page of art can print properly set on a standard comic sized page.

The most common used paper for comic art is bristol board, which is a high-quality, thick paper stock with a very smooth finish. Bristol board has even more advantages for inking, but still stands out even just for penciling work. The smooth finish lends itself to tighter, smoother lined artwork. It’s also sturdy for erasing (I’m telling you… erasers… lots of them) so that the paper does not scrape or tear. One negative is the smooth surface can also lead to smudging or smearing, so it does pay to be careful as you work.

On the actual pencil front, you’ll find a wide range of tools there. A good starting point is a 2B pencil, as it can lay down solid, dark black lines. But as you progress in your work, you’ll most likely find yourself wanting to use different strokes, shading, and varying darkness in the linework. That’s when you’ll want to expand. There are twelve grades of pencils from the hardest (H), to medium (F), up to very soft (9B). You’ll find these useful in creating different tones, shading, and textures.

Of course, beyond pencils, there are all sorts of art tools to create art, from charcoal to pastels, to paints. But remember, we’re talking about penciling comics and for the most part, those don’t enter into this discussion unless we’re talking someone doing full and finished art.

Get In the Zone

Once you get your tools set up, the next important thing is to learn the ‘zones’ for a page of comic art. This is absolutely critical to make sure the art will look right on a printed page. This falls on the penciler, and is being covered in the penciling series, because, understandably, it is the Penciler creating the initial art, which then is handed off to everyone else on the team, so it makes sense to do it right from the start.

There are three zones or areas on a page of comic art, each serves a very specific and important role in laying the art out for print.

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From the exterior edge of the paper in, there should be a border outside the art, which is essentially the buffer edge of the page, no art should be in that area, and any that is will most assuredly not be seen in the final printed version once it’s setup and sized down. On a standard 11″ x 17″ art board, this border would run 1/2″ on the sides, and 13/16″ on the top and bottom, defining a space to work in of 10″ x 15-3/8″.

The next zone or area is called the Bleed Area, or Full Bleed Area. This is for a specific form of printing that can print to the edge of a printed page, with no visible border running the exterior in the printed format. Art can extend into this area, but it’s important that nothing critical or central to the image as a whole extend into it, as it may or may not be fully visible in the printed version. (See below to better understand why.) Art that can fill a Bleed Area would include backgrounds, furthest extensions of limbs, or objects that can be cropped without losing definition of the figure or object, etc.  The full work space including the bleed area is the above mentioned 10″ x 15-3/8″ as defined by that buffer zone.

Next is the Trim Line, which on a standard 11″ x 17″ sheet is 5/8″ in from the edge of the paper on the sides, and 1″ in on the top and bottom, defining a space of 9-3/4″ x 15″ in which to work. The trim line is crucial because it is the average line of where the page will be trimmed in the process of printing. As books are run through a printer, there is a trimming or cutting stage, that is pretty accurate but not 100% – so the trim line represents the average line of the cut. This is why there is a small buffer on the outside of the trim line, the Bleed Area described above, and on the inside of the line defining the final zone.

That final zone is the Safe Area, sometimes referred to as the Live Area. It is 1″ in from the sides and 1-3/8″ from top and bottom, defining a work space of 9″ x 14.25″. As its name implies, the Safe Area is that area which is guaranteed to be centered and visible on the printed page – none of that will bleed off the edge or be cut in the process of trimming. So, obviously, it is within this zone that all important, central elements of the art should be fully contained – character faces, important props or elements of the backgound, etc. This is also important when it comes to lettering, as all lettering, captions, dialogue and sound effects should be 100% in this area only, but we’ll cover that more later.

Above is a great graphic from Blambot that shows the various lines and dimensions. Now, if you’re doing this work regularly you’ll find it easier to get art boards that have these lines pre-printed on them, and fortunately, there are several to choose from. My preference, as well as that of many artists, is Blue Line Comic Pro art boards. These not only set off the bleed and trim lines, they include marked notches for dividing a page into thirds, halves, etc. for most basic panel layouts. They also use that buffer area at the edge to provide an artist space to make notes on series, page number, etc. Once you start generating multiple pages of art on various projects, you’ll find it pretty important to label the pages so you can find them once again if needed.

Doing It Digital

Wait, what does penciling have to do with digital? I know at least someone out there is asking that and it’s a fair question.

Penciling in comics is not so much the means or tools used as the step in the process, still referred to by the name it acquired before computers existed. Those of us who create comics fully in digital still go through a process of ‘penciling,’ meaning we set up the page specs (file specs in this case), and create the initial art using custom tools, and the process of composing and defining the art generally looks similar to sketching and pencils on paper.

In most art software the Pencil tool is generally not a tool you want to actually use as a ‘pencil’ for drawing. There you go pretty exclusively with brushes. As above, you can use any number of settings to accomplish the same, and different artists will have their own preferences. Personally, when I’m ‘sketching’ or ‘penciling’ art in Photoshop, I used a standard round brush, set to multiply and around 40% opacity. Most of my work I set the brush to 3 pixels, though will sometimes thicken that up in the initial sketch when I’m doing thumbnails or roughs (more about all that stuff later). The point though is the process is similar, even if the venue is different.

Now, if you work exclusively in digital software, but are working on comics intended for print then you need to setup the same specs as listed above, especially concerning setting up your zones on your page. I’ve included download links for my own personal digital page templates I use for art, which are template files set to standard size for original art, and have both a layer with guidelines, as well as Guides you can make visible by clicking View > Show > Guides for Bleed and Trim lines. I’ve even been extra nice and included single page and double-page spreads.

For digital comics, if you’re creating the work for a specific digital venue, the best starting place is to review any and all guidelines and specs for that venue. They tend to differ a lot based on how the venue loads and displays art. However, most of the same general principles apply here, just as above, with differences accounting for format and venue.

As with physical tools, you can create the art at a variety of spec sizes, as long as the final file hits the right ratio and proper resolution or DPI for the art to display well. Art intended for print must be created at a minimum of 300DPI, any lower and you risk the art looking pixellated on the page. More detailed art, like full digital renderings, will often jump to 400, or even 600DPI to keep crisp edges and rich colors defined in print. Digital venues range based on their format. Apps and panel based venues often require higher resolution images so that the art remains crisp and clear even when you zoom in super-tight.

Obviously, one major difference here is that most digital venues for viewing comics do not match fully to standard print size. Reading comics on a computer means you’re going to want to lean more toward horizontal or landscape art to better fit a standard computer screen. Comics that display on a smartphone are usually panel by panel, so if you are targeting this type of venue you will want to lean toward more standard sized, smaller panels that then work zoomed in on the smaller screens. Of all digital devices, tablets are the closest reading experience to print with the ability to display decent sized, full print pages and still be readable.

The Best of Both Worlds

I’ll do a whole series on this somewhere down the road, but worth at least mentioning here – I generally encourage creators to think about all their options when they create a comic. You may start with releasing this comic you’re doing in a digital format on Comixology or Drive-Thru, but if it were to take off and you got that call from a print publisher wanting to do a collection – just how much would you hate yourself if you created all the content only for digital and not a high enough resolution or format to work in print? Don’t do that.

I think DC does the simplest, best answer here with their digital first series like Injustice and Legend of Wonder Woman. Their file specs for digital comics create web-screens that are optimized for most computer screens, but also, happen to line up to 1/2 of a standard comic page. The screens are then paced storywise and artwise to allow each consecutive set of two screens to be assembled into a single page for print. So, keep all this in mind as we press forward.

NEXT

Now that we’ve got those basics out of the way, next time we will start getting into some actual art! Promise!

Resources

Blambot is a definitive resource site for lettering comics, with fonts, tutorials and additional resources.
(I feel it only fair to mention them now since I plugged them above.)

Blue Line Comic Pro art supplies provide perhaps the most popular comic art boards on the market. With Pro and Custom boards marked with bleed and trim lines as well as panel hash marks, these are great time-savers for artists.

Standard 300DPI Comic Page Template TIFF File Download

Standard 300DPI Double-Page Spread Template TIFF File Download

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Creative Services, one of the best-known production studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycreativeservices.com!

My Comic Life Sundays & Star Wars

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My Comic Life Column 012: Lessons from Star Wars

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Welcome back for round 12 of this little corner of comicdom! First, I’m going to apologize because last time I promised to start a series on penciling this round. However, as I write these columns a few weeks in advance, to keep content on track, I kind of forgot the timing.

I had my heart set on doing my first look at a popular franchise with the premiere of Star Wars: Rogue One, and then doing something a little different for Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. So, penciling will debut the first week in January, for now, let’s take a little side trip on a few other topics, I think you won’t be too disappointed.

 

 

The Magic of Star Wars

Like this week’s My Comic Life strip says, I’ve always been more a Star Trek fan, literally consuming everything to do with that franchise, from watching every episode of every series and every movie multiple times, to reading every comic ever published, and slowly working my way through every novel ever done. I’ve even watched most of the fan-films out there. That series speaks to me on many levels that I’ll dig into elsewhere. But, Star Wars has always held a special kind of magic all its own in my life.

The original Star Wars, now known better by its subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope, premiered in 1977 when I was ten years old. I distinctly remember going to see it at the Ranch Drive-In Theater (yes, they really had those) on opening night with my parents and my grandmother. I remember being very excited because it was my first big sci-fi film on screen with entire new worlds to discover. For ten year old me, it hit all the right marks – great heroes and heroines, awesome villains, and a scale so much larger than life it seemed truly fit for the stars. I was hooked.

Now, the really cool thing is our family farm was a couple fields and a thin band of trees away from the Ranch Drive-In, so after seeing it that first night, I got to open my window every night when I went to bed and listen to it for it’s entire run. I would be ready for bed in time, open the window, lie in bed and listen to that story over and over again, until I could quote most of it.

Of course, when Episodes V and VI came out, those were must sees as well, and I loved the original trilogy with a passion.

From There…

After that, to be honest, the series lost interest to me. I, fortunately, missed the infamous Christmas special until I finally tracked it down a few years ago – yeah, lucky me. I did try to watch the Ewok movies that came out in the mid-80’s but I was on the cusp of graduating high school by then, and they were clearly aimed at younger children, so felt disappointing. I read the Marvel Comics when they came out, and stuck with it a while, but those also seemed to get silly and off the grid in terms of the feel of the original movies. As a result, I pulled away and didn’t follow most of the content that came out in comics, books and elsewhere over the intervening years.

When the prequel trilogy premiered, I checked them out in theaters and personally enjoyed them overall, but they still felt off when compared to the originals. More campy, more flashy, most of the typical complaints you read online. However, they renewed my interest in the franchise enough I did some investigating into what all else was out there and found a whole extended universe and timeline that, to be honest, put me off immediately because it seemed too complex to wade into.

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An Awakening…

Now, when the news hit about Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I decided to re-try the franchise, and this time make an effort to explore more of it. So, first I re-watched the films, prequels first, then the originals. Being a completist I then watched the Ewok movies, and even tracked down that aforementioned Christmas Special (yes, I am OCD thank you very much). I then, for the first time ever, watched every episode of the animated Clone Wars (thank you Netflix) which re-kindled some of that magic. Then of course, I absolutely loved Episode VII. Later today, I’m going to be checking out Rogue One and find myself pretty excited for it.

I’ve also decided I’m going to start digging into the books and comics next year and explore this broader universe I missed out on for all these years.

The Lessons to Learn?

As this column is geared toward aspiring creators I would recommend you do a bit of research and read the history of the franchise itself; it’s a rather storied saga of ups and downs, triumphs and travails all centered around the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas. Just starting with the Wikipedia article on it should hook you pretty quickly.

Lucas’ story is the consummate story of a creator’s journey. From his first getting noticed for his film THX 1138, two movie deal that spun out of that, his initial space-fantasy plans to do a Flash Gordon film, hitting walls there so deciding to do his own thing, struggling to give shape to that thing, only to create something few people initially believed in, only to then launch a cultural phenomenon that would change the landscape of science-fiction forever.

Lucas has met with a lot of unfair treatment over the years and often not given enough credit for the things he’s accomplished. He’s a creator who clearly struggles with his work. The vast and numerous changes made to Star Wars before it finally hit the screens, the ongoing changes in the story as the sequels rolled out, the additional changes made in updated releases, the additional changes introduced into the backstory with the prequels etc. show a man who spent a good portion of his life trying to figure out this story he created that sparked a cultural revolution (or perhaps rebellion).

Judging from his own statements, and the reaction of the fans, sometimes he nailed it, sometimes he fell short. The increasing antagonism between many of the fans and Lucas was a large part of why the prequels took so many years, and why Lucas eventually stepped back and sold his franchise to Disney.

I can think of few other franchises and creators whose story is so powerful in and of itself, showing the full range of the challenges, pitfalls, and peaks of being a creator – and even more – a successful creator (which isn’t always a bed of roses).

When I first saw Star Wars as a kid I loved it, and the magic was completely in the epic story of good vs. evil, heroes, heroines, and villains. It was in huge Death Stars and exploding planets, in cool droids and faraway worlds. I’d like to think as that magic has been rekindled in me, that this time it’s still all of that, but mixed with a healthy appreciation for the saga behind the saga, the work of a creator in bringing a dream to life, sometimes succeeding beyond everyone’s wildest expectation, sometimes falling flat on his face but persevering and ultimately creating something that will touch generations.

Isn’t that pretty much the dream of every creator out there?

NEXT

The next couple columns will be holiday focused and start setting the stage for 2017 on multiple fronts. Hope you’ll join me!

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Creative Services, one of the best-known production studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycreativeservices.com!

My Comic Life Sundays: Contracts and Conventions!

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My Comic Life Column 011: The Contract!

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Welcome back, and let me apologize for the extra week away. We do try to keep those to a minimum, so hopefully, it won’t happen again!

Last time around we wrapped up a multi-part series on writing where we looked at script format, panel, page, and storytelling. You can get the whole back catalog of columns over at our always up to date Archive page, which also collects all the creating comic resource links I share through here.

In between longer series on creative work, I’m going to try and introduce a number of single column practical topics that can be just as important to aspiring creators and freelancers.

Today’s topic may not tingle your creative urges, but you may end up thanking me tremendously someday anyway.

Why a Contract Is a MUST!!

If you’re going to be a professional creator or freelancer it’s important you realize that professionalism is embodied in a lot more than simply talent or creative skills. It’s embodied in how you conduct yourself, how you relate to colleagues, clients, and employers, and how you present yourself and your value with any potential job opportunity. I’ll be doing a number of columns on important aspects of conducting yourself professionally and the many ways that’s important, but let’s start with one of the simplest, most basic indicators of your professionalism – the contract!

Contracts are legally binding agreements between two parties for the exchange of goods and services. They can be fairly simple and straightforward, or incredibly complex and labyrinthine. I’ve had one-page contracts and forty-page contracts. If you’re just starting out, simpler and straightforward is better. By the time you get in to more complex ones, you really should consider having an attorney at least as a consultant to review those.

But the biggest mistake I see new and aspiring creative freelancers make is the assumption they don’t NEED a contract at all. “Oh, it’s for a friend” or “it’s just a simple commission piece” or “they told me not to worry about that” are never good reasons to not have an agreement in place to protect everyone’s interests. Why, you ask?

First, the fact of the matter is that most contracts are never really needed in good, solid professional relationships. They are set out, agreed, signed, filed and maybe reviewed every couple years to see if they need to be renewed yet or not. That’s good, that means things are going well, that means there is dialogue, negotiation, and everyone is happy with the arrangement. Doesn’t that contradict the admonition to always have one then? Nope, because good relations are not what contracts are for.

Contracts are for when things go wrong. They are the seatbelt, the life-vest, the airbag, the backup parachute, the helmet, etc. for the professional – kind of annoying, a distraction, and maybe even irritating – right up until that moment that you end up REALLY glad you had it. And yes, hopefully, for the vast majority of jobs that moment will never come – but someday – it will.

If you are providing a service there is absolutely nothing out of place or inappropriate about asking for a contract. It is the norm, it is expected, it is a right. Now, your ol’ Aunt Nellie who asked you to draw a picture of Schloopy the schnauzer may look at you funny if you ask for one, and maybe for Schloopy you can let it go. But remember this, the only individual or company absolutely guaranteed to not want a contract in place is the one planning to rip you off.

Second, contracts aren’t magic solutions to every problem but they can be life-saving stop gaps or firewalls that can protect you and your interests. For a lot of smaller freelance jobs, the client not paying, would not even be worth the price of getting to a courtroom to sue them (which is why you put in place other protections we will talk about). There will also be times that despite limits set in contracts clients will push for more and expect it anyway. The beauty of a contract, however, is that, if nothing else, it empowers you to draw a line in the sand and stop things spiraling down. It gives you a signed, legal document where, if it’s written well, you can point to and say THIS is what we agreed.

Visionary, in our experience, has had maybe three times contracts became life-vests on a fast sinking ship. But those three times? We kept control of rights we otherwise may have lost and saved us collectively over twenty-thousand dollars. Glad we had them? You bet.

So, what should a contract cover? Let’s hit the highlights.

The 411

Contracts should include names, contact info, dates, and specific terms of the agreement. They should state clearly who will own the completed work, what rights if any are retained by the creator, and what services are expected, with specific guidelines, along with the costs and payments for those services.

Work-For-Hire

Usually, if you are a creator doing work-for-hire, in other words, being paid for your work, then the material you create is generally owned by the person or company paying you. Every writer and artist working on Marvel and DC main universe titles are doing work-for-hire, they don’t own those characters, those stories, or that art. But, there are exceptions to this general rule, such as the fact that with most standard agreements the artist retains ownership of the original art and the right to sell that original art for personal profit, but does NOT retain the right to print it in collected form and sell it. It’s a small concession, but for many artists with established fan bases original art sales end up generating a steady stream of income.

Workflow – Approvals – Payments – Deadlines

This is getting a little more into the details, but contracts should at least provide some answers to all these questions:

How and in what format or file spec will the work be submitted to the client?

This matters. Especially when getting into digital files it’s important specs be set out at the beginning to make sure all the hard work you put in as a creator is going to end up being work the client can actually use. Be aware, you may need to educate your client a bit on some of these things, but make sure you know their expectations up front and make sure those expectations are what is really needed.

How and on what timeline will the client respond with feedback regarding the work?

This also plays into deadline considerations. Just as it’s important that you as a creator commit the time needed to complete work, it’s also important the client commit the time to respond effectively and fairly quickly, especially in those cases where you can’t really do anything more until you do hear back. Setting limits on responding and noting that extended delays will impact deadlines is one way to help draw that line in the sand early.

What limits are there to corrections, changes, or ‘tweaks’ before additional fees should be charged?

Very important! It’s fair a client have some approval over the work they are paying you for. Build in steps to help protect your time. Doing a script? Submit a plot outline first. Doing pencils? Submit layouts for review. These steps help make sure you are moving in the direction the client wants before you finish something they won’t like. It’s also fair to set some limits so clients can’t just endlessly needle things to death. Allowing three revisions is common – any beyond that, means you get paid additional time for your work.

How will payments be made? How often, how will they be processed, what is the process to GET paid, etc.?

Many companies, Visionary included, require creators to submit invoices. Most clients will have a preferred way to send payments. Make sure tax forms are filed if needed. Have all this in place before you have a payment due to avoid delays once you’re counting on a check.

What deadlines are there, and what understanding is there for factors that could impact deadlines?

One of the biggest challenges for freelancers is learning how to gauge their work speed and amount of content they can regularly produce. Deadlines are important, but it’s also important to understand, by the nature of the work, that things happen. If you are a single creator and you end up in the hospital for a week, not much you can do about that work wise. Discuss this going in and have some backup plans or at least considerations in place for various possibilities.

Defaults

Perhaps the most important piece of any contract is the section that lays out options and limitations for what happens if either party fails to meet their end of the deal. (Remember? It matters the second something goes wrong.)

This is the section where it is spelled out what options the client has available if you fail to produce the work by a deadline. Likewise, this is the section where your options as a creator are spelled out if the client fails to pay for work, or fails to approve work. The reason this section is so important is because it limits the backlash, clearly states how the contract can be terminated if necessary, what can and can NOT happen. This section is literally the emergency exit. Give it careful consideration.

Negotiations and Protections

Part of the vital process of putting together a contract is negotiations. When negotiating anything, it’s important to remember the principle of the act is a sharing of risk and a balance of expectations. Good contracts are not exclusively in the favor of any one party, no matter how much more they bring to the table. Good contracts protect the interests of all parties and put in place steps and processes that assure that.

For an example, I’m going to use the standard process we use at Visionary.

When a client approaches us for a job the first thing we have to do is assess – we have to discuss terms of a contract, we have to look into what resources we have to fulfill that contract, what resources the client has to make it happen etc. This can mean investing anywhere from three to thirty hours of effort that is essentially an act of good faith. No money is exchanged, no agreement is in place, but I’m already working on the client’s behalf.

At the end of that process, we then require a signed contract in place and a deposit paid to the studio before we do anything more. When someone balks at a deposit, I remind them we’ve already invested work to get the contract in place, plus, to move forward, we now need to hire creators, which means we will have contracts in place with them. We need to know we can pay our people timely, and to do that, we need the client to now make an act of good faith by paying a fair deposit.

Details vary depending on the size, complexity, resources etc. involved in any given job, but inevitably there are times the studio is in the hole and owed money by a client, and times we have an installment or payment from the client in the bank, entrusted to us to then pay to creators as they invoice for approved work still in process.

One strict art policy we follow in all cases is that finished work is never sent until the final full payment is processed. We will send lower resolution preview files for client feedback but not final hi-res files for print. If money is still owed at that point, it means it is money we now owe a creator that we will pay no matter what, else that’s on us and out of pocket. So, we don’t hand over the final product until that payment is in, because really, what reason would we have to NOT do so once that check clears? How long would we stay in business if we played those mind games? But, how many clients have failed to make final payments once they have everything they need? Enough to be common horror stories among freelancers.

In Closing…

Now, every creator and every job is going to be different, and there is no way I can write a single column that addresses every aspect of every contract. What I can say is this…

-Require a contract.
-Make sure it protects you as well as your client.
-Make sure it sets limits and boundaries for all parties.
-Make sure you’re fully prepared to deal with every single possibility and clause included in that contract, else don’t agree.

If you’re just starting out, it may feel like this kind of stance may rule out possibilities that could be your big break. It could, but it could also end up saving you a lot of time from con artists, cheats and thieves who will steal your work, your time, and your kindness. So, keep that part in mind also.

I’m including a template contract similar to the one Visionary uses. This is simple, basic, but solid and written specifically for freelancers and creative work-for-hire. The file is in WORD so you can download, add in your information in the highlighted sections, and use it yourself as a starting point. It can be used by you when you are agreeing to work with a client, or when you may be hiring someone to work with you on a project.

Download it here>>>

PLEASE NOTE: The author of this column is NOT an attorney and his advice here should not be construed as legal advice, just some common sense. (Basic disclaimer my attorney made me add…)

NEXT

Time to get back into creative stuff as I start a series on penciling! So, yes, pictures!!!

NOW DISCUSS…

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Comics, one of the best known comic studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycomics.com!

My Comic Life Sundays: A Wrap on Writing!

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My Comic Life Column 010: Writing Comics 101: The Story

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Welcome back as we wrap this round on writing (say that three times fast). Remember, this column looks at the entire process of creating and selling comics, so, I’ll focus on one arena for a series and then move into another.

Writers, you’re going to want to stay tuned to future editions simply because the more you know about creating and selling comics, the more skills you bring to any project you’re signing on for. Not to mention after the penciling series, I’ll be focusing on collaboration, then not too long and another writing arc for more advanced stuff. Ok?

So, we’ve looked at the mechanics of the script, the panel, and the page, now as we bow out on the art of stringing words together, let’s look at…

 

Telling the Story

There are tons of resources out there that can help you learn the basics of storytelling in general, from character development to plot, pacing, etc. There is also a good number that focus on storytelling and writing comics in particular. I’ve already started listing some great resources on our Archive page and will be adding to that a good bit before the end of the year with my own recommended reading for everyone’s wishlist this holiday season.  Any of those listed would be great resources for aspiring writers to check out.

For here and now, let’s focus a little on the specifics of telling a good comic story and some of the general principles you need to be aware of.

Beyond the Panel and Page

In previous columns, I focused a lot on the mechanics of the script as well as the comic book panel and page. I talked about how each of those represented ‘beats’ in a story and the potential and limitations for each. However, once you start linking those small beats of panels into pages, then those larger beats of pages into something more, then you’re getting into storytelling.

And just as I mentioned how important it is for a writer to be thinking visually at each of those levels, that becomes even more important here, because the broader story being told is one that is a meshing of word and art, a flowing sequence that will be breathed into life by art, so it’s critical that you as a writer are thinking on some visual level. You’ll see what I mean as we go.

There are several general factors a writer should be aware of when working in the comics’ medium, in order to make their comic writing as effective as possible. Let’s take a look at each.

1) Let the Art Tell the Story

A common mistake among aspiring and neophyte comic writers is when they feel the need to describe the action in captions or dialogue that could much more easily just be shown in the art. This includes settings, actions, even emotions. It’s true, a picture is worth a thousand words, which is what our medium is built on, so, when you can, let the art tell as much story as possible and get out of the way.

Double-page spread by Ale Aragon

Double-page spread by Ale Aragon

2) Make Sure the Art IS Telling the Story

The flip side of the above coin is when the writer passes up great opportunities to let the art carry more details of the story by failing to give proper direction to the artist. I can’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read that fail to include any body language, facial expression, or other visual emotional cues to the artist that can add depth to the story. The majority of scripts I read in submissions and from new writers mention WHO is in the panel, but only in the rarest circumstances mentions anything to give more insight into those characters.

Telling us our heroine is in the panel is fine, but pointing out “our heroine should be standing hands on hips with a broad smile on her face” helps carry the emotion, mood and depth of the story, especially in those times it may not be clear to the artist just what those feelings and emotions are. Only you, the writer, may know the deeper motivations of your characters so it’s on you to communicate those underlying elements.

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Page art by Ale Aragon

Now, if you’re working with a great artist who recognizes the importance of such subtle elements to the art, such as body language, expression, etc. then they may be great at adding it in anyway, but without direction, they may assign different motivations than you had in mind. If it’s a character you both have worked on a while, then even those deeper motivations and little character bits may come naturally.

But if it’s a new story, and a newer artist still feeling their own way, and you as the writer don’t share some of those cues, you may also end up with a bunch of listless, boring people just standing around, and that will be partly on you.

Beyond expressions and emotion, this kind of visual storytelling can happen on a lot of levels. Establishing a setting of ‘a city street’ is basic, but establishing a setting as ‘a city street in a bad neighborhood, with boarded up windows, trash littering the sidewalks, etc.’ sets the tone. Letting an artist choreograph a fight scene is best, but pointing out ‘one fighter is clear, smooth, skilled and simply defending themselves, while their opponent is desperate and savage’ helps the artist add layers of depth to that fight scene that will tell more story with the art.

You can even craft a story such that this ‘visual storytelling’ element is crucial to the actual story working. Some of the best comics, to me, are the ones that once you finish the story, you want to go back and read it again for all the little visual clues you missed. For example, if you’re writing a mystery, make sure certain props or features are clear in the art, so that they can be revealed later as the clues that lead to the solution.

Use of iconic visuals, as mentioned previously with Watchmen, also adds elements to a story. They can be specific symbols, or simply powerful, iconic shots that bring the story to a critical focus, such as a drop of blood falling into a pool of blood, a character sitting with their head in their hands, dejected and lost, or someone cradling the corpse of a fallen loved one. Think about some of your favorite comic stories and I can pretty much guarantee you there was at least one image somewhere in that story where the art told it all, no words were even needed, and that image stayed with you a long time.

Incorporate these things to add depth and detail to your work and help your artist tell the full story.

3) Use an Economy of Words

Because comics are a visual medium, you want to strike a fine balance of text and art. Make sure you aren’t overwhelming your story with narrative. Lots of words on a page make it look cluttered, detract from the art, slows the pace and tends to drag for the reader, increasing the chance they will get bored or frustrated.

Of course, there are going to be exceptions. There are times when there may be a need for heavier narrative. It may be an expositional scene to give necessary backstory or an important dialogue between two characters that explores their relationship, but these should be exceptions, not the rule.

4) Comics Are a Visual Medium So Make It Visually Dynamic

This is obviously something we will explore more in the art end of things, but it’s an important concept for writers as well. There is a reason the abundance of comics have over the top storylines that include lots of action, fantasy, and other visually dynamic plots. Simply put, dynamic, exciting visuals grab reader’s attentions and interest MUCH faster than pictures of people sitting around talking.

Yes, there can be perfectly good comics that do not include world-saving battles requiring two-page spreads for all the explosions. However, whether it is a use of setting, a purposeful focus on mood and tone to add dramatic tension, or any other tool, the more visually dynamic you can make a scene, the better it will play in an illustrated book.

For example, say you’re writing a scene where our hero is talking with his lady love about their relationship. It’s an important story element. It has emotional drama, people love the characters so they will be invested in it, but can you help make sure it plays out better? Sure. Do they decide to chat in her apartment? Or maybe he flies her to a mountaintop at sunset? Think about what choices you can make to give room to and ensure the art stays as dramatic and dynamic as possible, no matter what the content of the scene itself.

5) Comics Are a Visual Medium, Play to That Strength

As a comic writer, keep in mind you have multiple levels you can tell a story on. There is the narrative caption box, the actual dialogue, the internal monolog, and the actual portrayed events. Those portrayed events give you a whole level of storytelling you don’t have in prose so exploit it where and when you can.

For example, a prose novella I wrote, Legend of Fire-Mane, that was published in our first run with Visions, was later being adapted for a proposed original graphic novel. The opening scene in that story is a prophetic nightmare of the aged Dwarven-Lord in the story. In the prose edition, I had to focus on ‘painting’ the dramatic scene of crows feasting on mounds of dwarven corpses and the two elemental giants that then appear and fight. But, once the artist, Revin Denisya A Putra, illustrated those pages (seen above) and brought that scene to life, I didn’t need to use words to do it. So, I added the haunting words of a Dwarven funeral dirge that anchors the images, alludes to them, but adds more to the story.

Work on ways to maximize the story being told in the comic. Don’t include tricks for the sake of including tricks, but ask yourself how you can enrich or deepen the story by playing to the unique strengths of comics.

6) Write to the Format and Know the Limits

As I started this series I pointed out that one thing that makes writing for comics unique is the need for the writer to continually be mentally aware of the finished product. I kept a tight focus on that as I discussed the panel, the page, composition, etc. This also applies on a larger level in terms of the story as a whole.

Most comic writing opportunities are going to come with a set of expectations and thus limitations that will need to be considered in your approach to the story. This will often include having a certain page count to hit, which could range from 6 to 240 pages. It will also include the means by which the story is going to be released – serialized chapters, or a single collected edition, digital or print.

This will even be true if you’re creating your own thing alone, or with an artist. You’ll need to have a platform to release your comic, set up a schedule that can be met, and however those logistics play out, should then be considered once you begin writing.

The point here is that you need to know WHAT format you are writing a project for and write accordingly.

A stand-alone story should, obviously, be a complete story with beginning, middle and end. You’ll need proper pacing that will carry the story through the allotted pages, if that is a limitation in place. That story will also need a definitive enough resolution that the reader feels they got the desired payoff and the story wrapped up for a satisfying finish. Sure it can hint at more, set up a sequel if desired, but by and large, THIS story comes to a definitive end.

Serialized writing, such as doing issues of a comic series, or chapters of an ongoing webcomic, begins to introduce new elements to storytelling that are also important. Here, each issue or chapter becomes yet another beat to a still larger story. Oh, sure, maybe any given story – an origin, a specific conflict, or adventure in general – may end in any given chapter or issue, but the nature of serialized writing is that that ‘story’ then becomes part of the larger story for that series.

So, once you get into serialized writing of any kind it becomes even more important to be able to craft overlaying storylines, plots, and sub-plots, etc. that can weave in and out of the spotlight of the larger, ongoing storyline. It will also become important to be able to learn to write each chapter or issue to serve two very distinct purposes. First, each chapter or issue has to provide the reader sufficient payoff to make them feel the time invested was worth it. Second, and just as important, each chapter or issue in some way, shape or form, needs to provide enough of a hook to ensure the reader will want to come back for more.

And that will form the basis of our next writing series!

NEXT

We break next week for the Thanksgiving holiday, so HAPPY THANKSGIVING to everyone who will be celebrating! We’ll return December 4th for a one-shot column topic critical to freelancers everywhere – The Contract!

NOW DISCUSS…

My Comic Life Patreon Promotion

If you want more great content like this, support his Patreon campaign today by clicking the image!

About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Comics, one of the best known comic studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycomics.com!

My Comic Life Sundays: Writing Comics 101: Composition Workshop

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Heck of a week, huh? I understand, so, if you need to decompress, get your mind chilled out, later today, I am running my ever popular My Comic Life Panel at the Southern Maryland Comic-Con at the Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department, which is also Visionary’s last full convention of the year. Come join us if you can!

Get all the Details on our Events Page >>

I also want to do a quick shout out to the DC Authorfest from last week, I had no idea what to expect and ended up with a great crowd of awesome folks, very engaged, lots of questions, good dialogue – it’s just so sad these things only last an hour! But pretty awesome a bunch of us adjourned to a nearby room and chatted a bit longer. Loved it! Thanks DC Library and everyone who attended!

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I’ll be announcing some more ‘informal’ events for local fans I hope will spark interest soon, and Visionary announced our new Get Creative online feature debuting early next year, so lots of fun coming! Stay tuned!

Just a note, this week’s strip is a bit of a PSA from yours truly, something I felt needed to be said after some recent events in our industry (which were really just repeats of other events similar), triggered by a certain cover image…

I think anyone who knows me would know my general take on this, but, far be it for me to be subtle. Right?

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My Comic Life Column 009: Writing Comics 101: Compositional Workshop

C. Edward Sellner cropped

Last time I focused a good bit on composition, a term used to refer to bringing various elements of an artistic work together in smooth harmony to better enhance the overall finished piece. We looked at how composition needs to be considered in the panel, the page, and touched on it in terms of the entire issue, starting with the actual script.

Believe me, this is a critical piece for good comics and I will do an entire series on it when I get to drawing the comic. However, as I mentioned last time, the composition of the comic is something a good writer is also going to be thinking of, to help ensure the script has lots of potential for the artist to run with.

Along with discussing all this last time, I included a number of pages from various comic series that incorporate very effective use of composition, meshing art and story together to create truly outstanding work.

Many of you no doubt noticed a number of these are by writer-artists as opposed to the more traditional writer / artist teams. Why? Well, that one’s pretty simple. An excellent artist who is also an excellent writer is going to visualize their story and knows how the art can truly enhance the themes and mood. They are going to have the easiest time in bringing all that together in a script that gives plenty of potential and room for the art to bring it to life.

However, it is also VERY possible for a writer and artist working together to bring this to the table as well, as can be seen in the Watchmen samples as well as plenty of other notable comic series that have been published. I’ll revisit this after we examine these pages and let all you aspiring writers in on a little secret that might literally change the way you create comics.

The Watchmen

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Watchmen – Writer: Alan Moore / Artist Dave Gibbons – copyright and trademark by DC Comics

This series redefined comics on multiple levels. It was a brilliant collaboration between Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that showed just how powerful a story can be when told effectively in the graphic medium.

It is also very clear this collaboration started long before finished scripts were written. The world itself, the character designs, both the people and their costumes, the environs in general, every visual element re-enforces many of the themes of the series. There are also many visual plays and cues used throughout to tell the story on multiple levels, to illicit intuitive reactions and feelings that enhance the story. This includes the page layouts.

Throughout the twelve-issue run, by far, the nine-panel grid layout dominated (as seen in these sample pages). This layout is one that has been used many times in comics throughout their history. Keith Giffen is also quite well-known for his preference of this layout. However, it was used so much in Watchmen that it has since been seen as one of the identifying trademarks of it.

The grid layout has several strengths logistically. It is the easiest layout to follow, standard grid pattern allows the reader to very easily move through the page. In a way, it is a nice balance to a story far more complex on the intellectual and emotional levels. It allows the reader to use less focus in following the art, to give more focus on what’s happening IN the art and in the actual story.

The grid also allows a good bit of story to unfold with every page. It makes it easy for cinematic sequences, where the panels seem akin to animation cells, one following after the other in sequence. In a dialogue and character based story, it also allows for a wealth of dialogue, narration and story to unfold.

However, the layouts also enhance the story stylistically and emotionally. Watchmen is a dark, oppressive story, filled with violence, people trapped in various ways by their decisions, their lifestyles, etc. Many of the themes of the story revolve around some form of restraint or constriction. The rigid grid pattern enforces this. Even action scenes are often constrained in smaller panels making them feel almost claustrophobic.

When panels DO open up in that series, they contain something truly remarkable. I don’t claim to know and have never read any in-depth review on how Moore and Gibbons collaborated on this series, but it is clear the story focuses on visuals in a way that was brought in at the writing stage. The famous happy face with the blood smear, the ticking clock ticking down to doomsday, at the same time being a visual for WATCHmen, these are all ways the story was brought to life using visual cues and images that were an effective combination from writer and artist.

The Red Star

REDSTAR

The Red Star – Writer / Artist / Copyright and Trademark: Christian Gossett

This series, primarily from creator Christian Gossett, is another comic that has defined itself visually and compositionally from the outset. A sweeping, alternate history, fantasy-sci-fi epic, the art and story work together hand in hand to bring to vivid life a story well-crafted and well-executed.

Almost the opposite of Watchmen that uses a paranoia, clinging, restricting oppression to tell its tale, The Red Star is a sweeping epic that needs lots of room to breathe. My guess is this series has more two-page spreads than any series in history. Gosset defines this series visually in three ways. First is his own unique art style. Second is his blending of 3-D CGI images with more traditional art. Third is his use of page layouts and specifically 2-page spreads to enhance the storytelling.

His style itself is very energetic, dramatic, and emotionally powerful. His blending of traditional or ‘organic’ art for people and environs, but CGI rendered images for machines, ships, weapons, etc. is very nicely done. The people remain more dramatic, more ‘earthy’ and natural. But with the CGI images, he can add a level of 3-D, realism, depth and scale that opens the scenes up more. Pages that spotlight the Russian warships in the sky are truly impressive pieces that feel like they have a scale befitting a mile long, 20,000 crew floating fortress.

Part of what makes this work for Gossett is he allows the pages to open up to really show the scale, the size and scope of this epic he is telling. Very cinematic, movie quality images from that series make this world detailed, complex and feel very real, despite how different it really is.

While it might be argued the typical issue of The Red Star seems to have less content story-wise, there can be no argument that the story that is told leaves you with an impression. There is a sense of grandeur, a sense of the epic, even mythological levels of this story that want you to pause and stare at those wide open pages, and the art does just that.

Hellboy

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Hellboy – Writer / Artist / Copyright and Trademark: Mike Mignola

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, like the rest of these, doesn’t really need much in the way of introduction. One of the most well-known creator-owned series ever and one that has successfully made the leap into film.

When Mignola talked about creating Hellboy, I remember him saying that he had been invited to do a creator-owned series at Dark Horse and decided if he was going to do one it had to be one that let him draw all the stuff he REALLY wanted to draw. He accomplished just that.

Hellboy is a series so defined by Mignola’s style that fans once found it hard to accept other artists, even very good ones, drawing the iconic adventures. It’s because Mignola succeeded in creating a character whose appearance and world seems only right when drawn by him.

If we look at how Mignola enhances his story through the art, his style in general is obviously first and foremost. He does not have a distinct layout pattern that defines his work or the series, as he varies it a good bit in keeping with more traditional graphic storytelling. However, he does add some of his own quirks that are purely Mignola. His use of shadow and light, minimalist approach, and some of his distinct camera angles and close up shots also help define the look and feel overall.

Did You Catch It?

Yes, I absolutely did pick one series each that shows key art composition where the story shapes the art at the panel (Watchmen), the page (The Red Star), and the larger, overall series (Hellboy).

Let’s look at a couple other examples that are literally world’s apart.

The Walking Dead

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The Walking Dead – Writer / Copyright and Trademark: Robert Kirkman / Art: Charlie Adlard

Arguably one of the most successful creator-owned series ever, Robert Kirkman created a powerhouse in The Walking Dead. He originally launched the series with artist Tony Moore, who left after the first several issues. He was replaced with Charlie Adlard who has carried it ever since. While I love Tony’s art, and there is no doubt he is an incredibly talented creator, I think this was one of those lucky breaks in terms of the series. You’ve seen Charlie’s work in the samples above, now compare it to a single page from Tony.

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The Walking Dead – Art by Tony Moore

Tony’s art, again, excellent, but his style isn’t as perfect a match with the story as Charlie’s who seems born to do this series.

Adlard uses a much simpler, minimalist style similar to Mignola, with stark light and shadow, very realistic looking characters, more gritty, grim, and haggard looking all of which creates the stark and forbidding contrast of this world.

Tony’s work has much more detailed linework, slightly more cartoonish bent to the characters and more going on in the art which dilutes the world to some degree.

Would the series have gone on to be such a major franchise if the change hadn’t happened? It’s obviously impossible to say, but any long term fans who’ve been with the series now for a while, without looking back at those original issues might find it jarring to do so and that says a lot about the power of art and story.

Mouse Guard

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Writer / Art / Copyright and Trademark: David Petersen

Last but by no means least is David Petersen’s amazing series Mouse Guard. This series is printed in a square format, typical of children’s books, as opposed to standard comic dimensions. A very smart move for an all-ages series for a number of reasons. The shorter, stouter page leaves less panel transition over a longer, narrower spread for the reader to get lost in, which is good for a younger reader who may not be as versed in comic flow. David also keeps his layouts pretty simple and straight-forward. It’s also smart marketing – it looks more like the product a parent might typically buy for their child, targeting the primary demographic.

Now, this is another example of a writer-artist series, and David’s dream series of choice, but let’s ask an interesting question… What if David’s ‘dream series’ he wanted to do had been Walking Dead? Yeah, I don’t see it either.

See, the synergy between story and art, for a single writer-artist planning their own dream-series is going to start at the very first stages of conception. Artists who want to write are going to doodle, sketch, do designs, and the world, characters and story will start forming in their head as they go and naturally, that story will reflect the art, because that is where it was nurtured. One informs, shapes, guides, and fine tunes the other.

So, What Does All This Mean?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this series on writing, one of the challenges to the writer in comics, more so than any other medium, is how much the quality writer is going to need to focus on and visualize the finished product. That needs to start at the very beginning of the conceptualization of the series and run right through to the final editing of the script.

Which leads me to my closing point on this column: introducing the topic of collaboration, one I will explore far more in-depth after this writing series and the following penciling series.

I am continually amazed at how many writers fully visualize their comic, write story bibles, full scripts, character descriptions and bios, literally fully plot out everything, THEN go looking for an artist. They’ve just made their lives ten times harder than it needs to be because now they are looking for a single artist to match a singular vision that has to fit inside the box.

Don’t get me wrong, it can work, and obviously with longer running series, especially big-two series spanning decades, there will be multiple teams over time. But if you think about it, how many writer and artist (or writer-artist) team runs on those specific books REALLY stand the test of time as a milestone? Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Christopher Claremont and Dave Cockrum then John Byrne on X-Men, Byrne solo on Fantastic Four. More recently I’d add Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman run. That magic can be hard to capture when creators are stepping into a ‘thing’ already made.

So, if you’re a writer, thinking about creating a series you want to do, don’t build it out in exhaustive detail and then try to find an artist – find an artist you want to work with and then create something together. Ask them what they want to draw? Let their art shape the world, the characters, the story. You just might be surprised what comes out of it.

Next…

Now that we’ve explored a lot of the comic-specific dynamics of writing comics, we’re going to close out this series run with a focus on “Telling the Story” and look at some of the important aspects of telling good stories that work well in comics. Hope to see you there!

NOW DISCUSS…

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Comics, one of the best known comic studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycomics.com!

My Comic Life Sundays: Family and Writing Comics 101

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Apologies for the delay on our Sunday post – our site was experiencing technical difficulties which prevented posting. We’ve now got the problem fixed.

Thursday, during our Weekly Visions post, we introduced our new staff and interns – Visionary’s biggest class ever! I actually got to spend some great quality time with all those fine folks over the last couple weeks.

Gary Cohn, our new Special Projects Manager was gracious enough to let me come stay with him in Richmond the night before the Hampton Comic-Con to help make the morning drive-in for the show a little easier. We got dinner with Aaron Riley, who’s done all the amazing covers for our Deadlands novels, then chatted about the future of Visionary. I also got the grand tour of the Cohn Archives, including original art from folks like Paris Cullins, Ernie Colon, Ron Wagner, Billy Tucci and others. Also got a chance to check out designs, sketches and other notes for projects that never were – but really should have been.

I then hosted our first full class Staff Workshop with our new interns Saturday. We did a training on comic-book coloring, self-promotion, and marketing, and talked about creative work for our new class, stuff we should be announcing something about by end of the year. What a crew!

So, while working in comics may just be the most fun job in the world, its also brought me a whole circle of wonderful people who’ve become such an important part of my life – from the full team at Visionary, to many of the great creators we’ve worked with, to the professionals whose work I’ve admired for years, that now invite me to their homes. That’s My REAL Comic Life and My Comic Life Family!

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My Comic Life Column 006: Writing Comics 101: The Script

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I’m going to use the next few columns to do a run on writing. Let it be said here and now, I’m doing this column for every aspiring talent, from the newest beginners to folks who’ve been at this a while. So, you’ll notice with every series, I start from a very basic viewpoint and get more into the fine art of each arena as I go.

However, as a word of advice, I wouldn’t skip reading a column and just assume, ‘oh, that’s pretty basic, I know all about that.’

I’m willing to bet there will be at least one nugget of wisdom in each that you didn’t know, even if you’ve been in this business a while. So, put that to the test and let me know how I do.

Writing: The Script

If we look at the most basic fundamentals of writing comics, you can’t get much more basic than looking at the form in which comics are written. You will find throughout the production process of comics that they have far more in common with film or television than prose. That commonality begins here. Comic stories are written in script format, much like screenplays, and that script, as I’ve mentioned before, will be the central tool everyone else on the team producing the book will use in their work.

Since this tool is so central to the production of a comic, there should be some care and consideration in how it is crafted. There is no universal rule of formatting for comic scripting but there are some pretty general and shared guidelines that you will find most companies either require or prefer. Following these guidelines not only makes you look better and more professional as a writer, it will also make things much easier for anyone working with you in producing the book, from the editor on down to the letterer. It will also help you in your own growth to focus attention on areas needed and be more cognizant of things you’re doing yourself – right and wrong.

All of which means any writer wanting to work in comics needs to have a good mastery of the technical form of the comic script. With that in mind, let’s look at the script and its format.

General Rules of Formatting

1. Keep your page margins at a healthy one to one and half inches.
Again, since multiple people will be using this, space for notations and edits is always helpful. Granted, a lot more editing is done on computer these days, still, an editor might prefer reading a hard copy and making notes in the margins to pass on to the writer. Likewise, many artists like having a physical copy of the script they can keep at their drawing board to use to jot notes on for ideas in layout, camera angles, colors, even thumbnails. Give them room to annotate for their own use.

2. Mark Page breaks in the Comic with page breaks in the script.
Most comic pages should not require a full page of text to setup in the script. Unless you’re putting a lot of detail into the art direction, or probably too much dialogue, most comic pages will only require a half to three quarters of a standard 8.5×11 letterhead page. You should still start a new page of the script for every new page of the comic. That way there is a clear distinction from one page to the next so that everyone else can see where one ends and the next begins.

3. If a page of the Comic runs over a single page of script, notate it accordingly.
In general, this is to prevent any confusion of what belongs on what page. If it runs over, the script page should have a note of MORE at the bottom corner, and a heading of PAGE # CONTINUED at the top of the next page, with the actual page number inserted. In these cases, hopefully the continued page will only be a small paragraph at best. Still start the next page of the comic on a new page in the script.

4. Use Numerals for Numbers to designate things in the script
PAGE 1 / PANEL 1
Never spell numbers out when using headers or tags. Using actual numerals makes it easier for artists and letterers to glance at them and get a feel for totals. The eye can pick out the numerals quicker than the spelled out versions.

5. Use Page Headers, include appropriate information needed.
If the script is a submission, then the main thing to include here is all your personal contact information so if the script is accepted, they can get in touch with you. If you’re doing the book professionally the company may have specific things needed, in which case, follow those guidelines.

In general a script Header should include the following:

  • Your name
  • Name of the series
  • Issue number of the series and total issues if limited (such as #1 (of 5))
  • Version or revision number or date (such as Draft 1, or Revision 3, or Revision 10/23/16), this can help ensure people know they are working on the most current version.
  • Script page number, and total script pages.

Pros reading this may think I’m being a bit anal in the amount of info included here, but, trust me, it doesn’t hurt. A well-established pro friend of mine just commented on his twitter that he needed to send an entire issue back to be re-lettered because it was done using an older draft of the script. Likewise, I’ve seen artists print a script, lose a page of it and not even realize it because of poor formatting and labeling.

Again, if this is a tool, then the easier you make it for everyone else, the smoother things will go. If any other member of the team is missing a page, or somehow jumbles the pages, and can’t determine what happened easily, it slows things down. Good, clean formatting can help people quickly figure out if something is wrong or make sure everything is indeed okay.

Breaking down the Script

The script, like a movie script, should properly be laid out almost in an outline form, so that various people know directly where to go for the information most pertinent to them at any given time.

PAGE 1

Every page of the script should have the comic page number clearly at the top and set off so it’s the most noticeable. Again, this tells each following person on the team what page they are actually working on and helps to make sure things flow smoothly.

If it runs over a page of text…

PAGE 1 (CONTINUED)

Again, always starting a new page of the comic on a new page of the script.

PANEL 1

Panels need to also be clearly designated so the story breaks at the appropriate moments, from penciling to lettering.

Now this doesn’t mean an artist might not add a panel, or combine two you mention, especially if they are strong storytellers themselves, but if they do, its usually for a good reason, and any script can be adjusted accordingly.

Art Description:

This is one of the key elements of a script and one of the main sections editors will look at to see how well a writer knows his or her craft. The art description should be formatted in more standard, single spaced lines, like a regular paragraph. It should also include full sentences that provide a brief, yet detailed description of the setting, characters, actions and interactions important to the telling of the story. These, obviously should focus on cues and details the artists need to know to include.

I generally like to describe the setting at the beginning of a scene…

Setting: This scene takes place outside, at night, on a street and a nearby alley in downtown Manhattan, one of the seedier parts of town, so some boarded up buildings, trash on the street, etc. Its pretty late, and no one except our characters are around.

This gives the artist the environment right away, let’s them picture the space the action is happening in so they can set up and lay out that space to use it effectively in the following panels.

Then each panel gets a specific art direction immediately under the heading…

PANEL 1

Our main character, Joe, is standing on the sidewalk, back to an alley, looking nervously up the street, waiting for his contact to arrive.

I will expand on this more when I focus more on the art of writing a good script, but notice the description very succinctly gives the artist the most important elements of the story:

  • Who? Joe.
  • Where? On the sidewalk next to the street his back to an alley.
  • Action? He’s looking up the street.
  • Feel? He’s nervous.

It also allows the artist to take cues in the script and add something of his or her own flair to help emphasize. Maybe Joe is sweating from his nervousness, maybe he’s tapping his watch. In other words, the art description should setup the scene, but not obsessively describe it to its most minute detail. Let your artist do some of their own storytelling, but do give them the cues they need so they know what will work and what won’t.

Obviously some scenes will require more detail if there is more happening than a character simply gazing up a street, but the writer should scrub descriptions down to the most basic level they can before moving on. Include what helps move the story forward and let the artist do the rest.

Now, sometimes a writer can include more specific visual suggestions to the artist as well. For example:

PANEL 2 (Largest Panel)

Joe is suddenly grabbed from behind by a huge, hairy werewolf!

Noting a specific panel is the intended focus of the page, or noting one panel should be an inset of another panel to more closely link the two beats are typical. Another good example of this is a more cinematic sequence where the writer suggests using two or more panels with the same camera angle, same view, but single, simple elements that change to really put the focus on that single piece of storytelling.

PANEL 3

We see the werewolf crouching over Joe, clawed hand poised to strike, as Joe is terrified, arms raised to protect himself.

PANEL 4

Same shot, same angle but the werewolf has paused, his arm half-lowered, Joe now looking up, his hands lowered as well.

The point here is most artists don’t mind some direction from the writer on layouts or camera angle, if there is a particular storytelling reason for it. To create a cinematic sequence that really emphasizes a critical moment, or a layout that makes a nice visual setup is something that a writer can include to help enhance the art.

The important corollary to this is that unless there is some specific reason for such direction, leave it to your artist. Let them pull together a layout, choose camera angles, how much or how little to include in the background. The better the artist, the better they will take what information you do give them and really play it out in a way better than you could have imagined.

I’ll focus more on this when I talk about the writer collaborating with the artist, but again, another good point to be mindful of.

Dialogue:

Under the art direction for each panel comes the dialogue section of the script. This section is set off visually to make it easier for the artists and letterer, but there are also several key things the writer should be focused on while drafting these sections.

1. Don’t overwrite – let the art tell as much of the story as possible and get out of the way.
The biggest mistake from most aspiring comic writers is some deep rooted need to fill a page with captions, dialogue, and text, sometimes to the point of cramping the art almost out of existence. Comic scripting is an art of minimalism – include what is needed to move the story forward, give the characters their own voice, and set the scene when needed. If something can be done in the art, use the Art Direction to set that up and let it work its magic. Much better to have the artist draw Joe as nervous than to have him say he’s nervous.

2. Be mindful of how much text you are putting on a page and how that impacts the room for art.
This kind of spins out of the first point, but needs to be considered for a whole page as well. You can’t have nine panels on a page, each filled with multiple speech balloons and captions. The more text per panel, the bigger that panel has to be.

This is important to the artist as well who needs to be aware of how much text is going in a panel in order to leave sufficient space for balloons and captions in the actual art itself. Lettering cannot go over key elements in the art, so, an artist will make sure there is enough ‘dead space’ to include the dialogue. A writer who is keeping that in mind as well makes it easier.

3. Be mindful of the sequence and flow of the dialogue and how that will work in the art.
For example, if you have three characters in a panel, and they are each talking, the ideal layout would be to have the characters go from left to right in the sequence they speak. So, if Joe speaks first, he’s to the left, then Mary second, so she gets put in the middle, and John speaks last, so he goes to the right, that way the sequence flows left to right with the reader’s eye. As a writer, make sure you aren’t giving conflicting cues for the artist to have to figure out.

Lettering:

It’s also the main focus of the letterer who will be translating the dialogue from the script to the actual comic page. Like the other sections, it should be setup to help make their work as easy as possible in order to help ensure fewer mistakes.

Lines of dialogue, narration and sound effects should be indented and double spaced between each, so they are clearly set off from one another. Each line should start with a tag identifying the source in all caps, and the text in normal type, like so…

PANEL 1

Our main character, Joe, is standing on the sidewalk, back to an alley, looking nervously up the street, waiting for his contact to arrive.

1 CAP:         New York, 10:30pm

2 JOE:        Man, I wish he would get here already.

Notice, I number my lines. This is not as important, but I like to do it so the letterer can easily glance and see how many lines, balloons, caption boxes etc. go on a page. It’s also a good reminder for me, because if I get up to 7, I know I’m starting to crowd the page and probably need to shut up more and let the art talk.

The tag at the beginning is set off by being IN ALL CAPS, identifying it easily so the letterer knows what the source of the line of dialogue is. Having the actual dialogue indented from the source tag and double spaced from other lines makes each bit clearly visible at a glance, so the artist and letterer can more easily picture the space needed and where to place lettering.

Also, note in the actual line of dialogue, some words are in bold, sometimes instead of bold, you’ll see words in ALL CAPS. These are called Stressors, and however they are noted in the script, the Letterer will then make those words bold in the final book. When we read a line of comic dialogue, we tend to emphasize the words in bold. By choosing certain words to be stressed, we help the reader create a rhythmic tone and lilt of voice that makes it sound more conversational or ‘spoken’ in the reader’s mind. This is a standard motif in comics that you don’t find in other mediums as much.

An alternative layout is more along the lines of how dialogue is noted in screenplays and works just as well.

PANEL 1

Our main character, Joe, is standing on the sidewalk, back to an alley, looking nervously up the street, waiting for his contact to arrive.

CAPTION:
New York, 10:30pm

JOE:
Man, I wish he would get here already.

I’ve known a number of writers who feel the formatting and layout doesn’t matter. They often put single line spaces and breaks and everything clutters together. The writers who feel that way are often not writer / artists, and usually are less visual in their thinking. Part of the reason behind the spacing, especially in dialogue, is that it helps an artist to glance at dialogue and get a feel for how the spacing will work in the drawn page. The more set off each line is, the easier to picture it in a balloon on a comic page and then leave enough room for it in the artwork. Same for the letterer as they are figuring how to approach placing these words in the art. When everything runs together, this becomes more of a challenge for both.

The source tag is important to the letterer for obvious reasons, such as ensuring the dialogue balloons point to the right person, but they also provide a wealth of other information for the more subtle aspects of lettering. Let’s review some common source tags.

CHARACTER’S NAME: Indicates the person speaking.

2 JOE:        Man, I wish he would get here already.

CAP: Refers to a caption box for narrative or internal monologues.

1 CAP:         New York, 10:30pm

CHARACTER NAME CAP: Distinguishes when more than one character has captions or any kind of narrative appearing in a caption. Letterer’s will often use different shades of color or effects in the captions to distinguish them so readers can more easily track who is talking. This motif is often used when the reader is hearing a conversation taking place somewhere other than the scene visible in the panel, or if the narrator of a story shifts during the story.

CHARACTER NAME (OP): Usually refers to when someone is speaking, so their voice would be heard in that scene, but the character is not visible, thus Off Panel. It will usually also include, either in the art direction or here, some indicator of where that voice is coming from so the letterer can place it.

3 WEREWOLF (OP from the alley shadows):         GROOOWWWWL

CHARACTER NAME (SHOUT) or (whisper): Indicates the voice tone of the character speaking, shouts are stressed with bold or all caps, whispers in smaller fonts.

SFX: Indicates the line is a sound effect. Important note here, and a distinction from screenplay work, it’s the comic writer’s job to give the actual sound effect (BANG!) not the classification or source of the sound effect (gunshot sound) as that shows the Letterer how they want the effect to actually appear.

DEVICE (Electric) or CHARACTER NAME (Telepathy): Such notations here help to distinguish when a voice is coming through a device, like a radio, or when a character is using telepathy. In these cases, it’s important to note, because the letterer will most often make the balloons for such dialogue distinct to stand out.

There are many others that can be used. Basically, the point I’m making here is that the source tag is a handy way to alert the letterer as to what they are doing with that line of dialogue. Is it a sound effect? Is someone speaking in a standard word balloon? Are there dialogues off panel that need to stand out in unique caption boxes? Is a specialized balloon needed to show the dialogue is different than normal conversation?

Clearly noting such things helps ensure the letterer can easily track what they are doing and plug things in accordingly. It’s also common practice to use abbreviations, or simpler notations if something is used often in a certain book. For example, PROFESSOR XAVIER could be tagged as PROF X, or XAVIER. A book that has telepaths reading each other’s minds might have a note at the beginning saying that an * next to the name tag means it’s telepathy. The important thing here is to be consistent and clear to make the letterer’s life easier.

A writer who leaves such to the guess work of the letterer can’t really complain when it comes back wrong.

And just so no one leaves worried for Joe…

PANEL 3

We see the werewolf crouching over Joe, clawed hand poised to strike, as Joe is terrified, arms raised to protect himself.

PANEL 4

Same shot, same angle but the werewolf has paused, his arm half-lowered, Joe now looking up, his hands lowered as well.

4 WEREWOLF:          Joe? Is that you?

5 JOE:                           Harry! You made it, you old dog!

In Summary…

Basically as a writer, keep in mind your script becomes the central tool for your entire team to create this comic book you’ve written. The more care you put into crafting that tool, the more professional you appear and the more the people working with you will enjoy the process. Not to mention the less chance of complications in the process.

When you’re reviewing a script you’ve written, try to look at it as your penciler, then as your letterer. Are things clear? Laid out neatly to be picked out easily? Is everything noted so they don’t have to go back and infer things? The more care you take in your scripting, the less likely mistakes will happen down the road!

To get a better feel for scripts, check out the Comic Book Script Archive, a site that hosts a huge collection of scripts from numerous writers. Its a great resource, with a simple caveat…

Everything I’ve mentioned above is the basic introductory tools for any writer to use when drafting a script, especially if doing so before an artist or letterer is even attached. Any creative team who works together on a regular basis will develop a number of mutually agreed shortcuts between them that are fine, because they know what those shortcuts mean. Don’t make the mistake of reviewing a script written by a professional writer, who knew the team doing the book a script is for, had worked with them for years, possibly on that very series, and thus took a lot of shortcuts in formatting, presentation etc. that his team would know, and think that undermines my advice above. Different beast.

NEXT:

We’ll start getting more into the actual mechnics of comic scripting, and start applying some of these basic principles.

NOW DISCUSS…

What are your thoughts on comic scripts and script styles and formatting? Is this what you expected, or were you surprised at the mechanics and logistics of the process?

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Comics, one of the best known comic studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycomics.com!

My Comic Life Sundays: A Foundational Fall

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Welcome back folks to another dazzlingly, daring diatribe from yours truly! Fall has fallen, and finally, things are slowing down just a tad as we go into the home stretch this year. Of course, that doesn’t mean much around good old Visionary.

Why not you ask? Well…

We’re still pretty hyped up that our first novel under the Visionary Books line, Deadlands: Ghostwalkers, was nominated for a covetous Scribe Award and a Dragon Award, thanks to the wonderful wordsmith Jonathan Maberry. The mass-market paperback hit stands back in August.

We’re also still celebrating ‘thunderous’ reviews for our second release that just hit stands a couple weeks back. Deadlands: Thunder Moon Rising, by our own EiC Jeff Mariotte is proving to be an excellent follow-up to the series, with its own take on the weird west!

On that front, us folk here in Visionary Central also got our first gosh-darn, gander at the finished manuscript from Seanan McGuire, who’s proliferous pen is dishing out our third book, Deadlands: Boneyard. It caps the trifecta quite nicely with a wild tale of a weird-west freak show! On top of that, we got the same amazing art team back, with Aaron Riley doing the cover, and Steve Ellis gracing the interior with his own pen and ink.

We’re also wrapping a record-breaking number of shows for Visionary this year, with our final full slate between now and mid-November. You can get all the latest on the ones still coming up with our Weekly Visions post from last week. So, if you’re in range of Hampton, Tucson, Washington DC, or Southern Maryland, come and say howdy to our stalwart staff and crazy creators at your show of choice.

Don’t fret though, there’s still more to come, stuff we’ll be starting to tease as we go into the colder months. Hey, you got to have stuff to read and enjoy on those long winter nights, and we’ll have you covered just like your favorite snuggly blanket!

 

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My Comic Life Column 004: Building Up 2: Laying a Foundation

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Alright, so last time, I did my best Joker a la Heath Ledger impression and challenged all you aspiring creators out there to get serious. Seriously, check it out here if you missed it.

So, now that we’re a little wiser, a little more focused, and a lot more serious, having spent some time rethinking our plan, let’s start building up that potential comics career, shall we? Where, oh where, should we start?

Digging the Hole

A buddy of mine pointed out that even before you lay a foundation, you actually start by digging yourself a hole. He was being sarcastic, but he got me to thinking – yes, you will indeed be digging a hole. If you’re going to seriously pursue a career in comics, you will be committing resources to that, so be prepared for those to start leaking out of other areas of your life. You will need to commit time to practice your craft on a regular (ideally daily) basis, so where will that time come from? There will also be expenses associated; whether it’s hardware or software, a laptop, art supplies, or just printing costs, you will at some point spend money, so can you set realistic limits and budget that out of your income?

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Be prepared to dig a hole, but know how deep you go.

I’m now going to reveal a critically important piece of the puzzle here…

For your own well-being, it is essential you be intentional and on top of just how big a hole you’re digging in order to pursue this career, and to know when you may need to step back or even stop. I’m not passing judgment on anyone’s journey or the sacrifices they may have been willing to make. I am however strongly advocating that you be intentional in being aware of those sacrifices and the impact they have not only on you but those around you.

I’ve known folks who just kept pushing ahead, never seeming to realize what they were putting on the line. I’ve known folks who risked everything to pursue a creative career (in comics and elsewhere) and lost jobs, homes, cars, family, and even their independence. Some end up making it, and build all that back plus so much more; others–a lot of others–don’t. We all know the negative stereotype of comic creators who are middle-aged, living with their parents, not making enough to support themselves, much less families they’ve brought along with them, but still convinced they will make it huge in comics someday, despite having very little progress to show. You don’t need to be one of those.

I’ve known plenty of top professionals who find it hard enough to support themselves, so when I see folks who undermine the entire rest of their life or fall short in their other responsibilities to doggedly pursue something where they’ve made precious little gain, it’s heartbreaking. Yes, when you start, you will first be digging the hole, investing time, money, energy, etc. To take a serious leap of faith with some real potential, or to give a marked timeframe to operate in the negative, in order to launch your comics career is part of the game. But keep in mind, at some point, to be truly successful, the hole needs to stop getting deeper, and something needs to start filling it up.

Foundation = Education 

Before you start trying to work in comics, you should learn about comics. Simple, huh? Yet many hopeful creators overlook this entirely, or make the mistake of assuming having read and loved comics all their lives equates to an education.

(Spoiler: It doesn’t.)

The Medium As An Art Form 

Image result for ancient pictographs

Where comics REALLY began.

The first step is learning about comics as an art form. It’s important to learn about how the medium works, the roots it evolved from, and the various changes over time. So, at least some understanding of how we went from pictograms in ancient cultures to the digital revolution of the 21st century is important. Doing so, you start to learn the language of the art, its rules and guidelines, its practices and aesthetics. You learn what works, what doesn’t, and where maybe you can bring something new to it.

This is even more important these days as comics are making huge evolutionary leaps in the growing digital space. Innovations are helping push the boundaries and completely changing some of the most basic, fundamental aspects of comics as a storytelling medium. If you as a creator don’t have a solid grasp on that, how do you expect to compete?

The Business Itself 

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When you’re as popular and established as Alan Moore, feel free to feel the same, until then…

While comics in and of themselves are art, they are also very much a business, an industry. So, for anyone wanting to work in that industry, there is a great deal one should learn about that industry. Learn how the direct market works, learn about the differences between indy-press and mainstream. Learn what publishers are out there and the specific niches and demographics they cater to. Learn about the distribution and retail end of comics as well. You don’t need to become an expert in every arena, but you should have a solid, fundamental grasp of the bigger picture, especially on how it will impact you as a creator.

I often scan listings for folks seeking creators and/or collaborators. I’ve found some great artists to work with as a writer, and sometimes solid enough looking leads to send a heads-up about my studio’s services. It startles me, though, the number of listings I regularly find from folks who so clearly have NOT learned the business. Promises of working on a pitch, to get a series picked up by a publisher, who will then PAY the creators (doesn’t happen EVER), or folks wanting someone to work free, with no shared ownership, or… well, any number of ads that I immediately gloss over, but with a twinge of regret for the equally clueless folks who will fall for them.

Just learning a minimum about our little niche of the entertainment world will–and I’m just being honest here–disillusion a good number of people. Again, it’s that magical allure of comics and the myths surrounding it, but once you get a good understanding of the dynamics, politics and economic realities of comics? It may indeed lead you to change your mind about whether you want to pursue that dream career or not. At the very least, it may lead to some significant shifts in your plan to get there, and that will only help you in the long run. (Everyone’s been reading Jim Zub’s Blog I shared earlier, right?)

The Job and the Other Jobs 

No editor will seriously consider a submission from an aspiring creator that shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how the job is done or how it fits into the larger picture of a creative team. Learn the formats, and how lax or strict those guidelines are for your chosen field. For example, writers work in script format, which has a good bit of leeway as long as key elements and layouts are there. Finished art handed in for printing? Very specific specs to hit for printing. Learn how to produce your work best so that those you are working with have what they need at their fingertips.

Image result for comic scripts

Quick script overview from Greg Pak’s site – one of the many creators who offer pro tips regularly.

For example, a writer needs to know about comic script formatting. A prose story or a jumbled outline will never even be read in the best of circumstances. The more you learn about how an artist takes a script and works from it in creating the art, how the colorist looks to it for guidance on palette and mood, and how a letterer works with it in lettering the actual book, the more you benefit not only yourself but everyone else on your team. Keeping those factors in mind means you produce better quality scripts, and your team a better quality book.

Just like any other job, the people who get the best jobs are not just the ones showing the most talent, but the ones who produce the best work. Work created to spec, prepped well for the rest of the team to dive in, and save the editor and production folks time, is going to be seen as better work.

How Do I Learn Everything? 

You don’t, and you don’t have to. It will be a process you should start, and dig into a good bit before you even start submitting work, but it’s one that doesn’t ever really end.

Take every opportunity to learn that you can. That means when you get critical feedback on a portfolio, redo the portfolio and incorporate those comments. Stay up on media sites and any developments in the industry. Make sure a regular part of your time commitment includes broadening your education and expanding your knowledge base. There are a ton of books on every aspect of creating comics, and plenty of resources online, from entire sites focused on creating comics, to pro creators who regularly offer tips on their social networking pages. If you have the chance, take classes, attend conventions, network with folks in the know and pick their brains whenever you can. Find the ways that work best for you and fit into your schedule and resources, and make the most of them.

Then once you’ve started, never quit. All quality professionals recognize the need to stay current in their field, to learn innovations and cutting edge developments. We recognize this as obvious with fields such as medecine, or science, yet somehow miss it in comics. As I mentioned before, comics, as an art form and industry is in a major state of flux, with sweeping changes happening all the time. If you want to compete, you need to be on top of all that.

NEXT:

Basic Training! How to start doing the work, and taking your first steps into the wonderful world of comics! This one will start including mandatory (if you’re serious) reading lists, online resources and a bunch of other goodies!

NOW DISCUSS…

Feel free to add your thoughts, any great resources you know of, or simply share your educational stories.

 

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Comics, one of the best known comic studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novel from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycomics.com!

My Comic Life Sundays: Getting Serious!

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Thanks to you fine folks, our little Sunday feature is gaining some ground! Please feel free to share links and recommend our little weekly get togethers! Also, please, by all means, feel free to comment, share your experiences as a creator, or ask questions. That’s the whole point.

Let’s get to the fun stuff!

021 It'll Never Work

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My Comic Life Column 003: Building Up 001: Getting Serious!

C. Edward Sellner cropped

Last week we broke down the myth of “Breaking Into Comics.” There was weeping and gnashing of teeth, ashes, and sackcloth, rending of flesh and bone. Fun for everyone, and something you should check out here if you were lucky enough to miss it.

This week I promised I would start a small series on developing a much more realistic approach to building a career in comics, one aimed at providing the fundamental necessities and important steps to help improve your odds. Far be it from me to let you down on that.

And again, I want to stress, this isn’t a how-to on making comics and being a comics creator, it’s about shooting for a part-time or full-time career of creating them. Worlds apart, but we’ll get to the fun of creating the little buggers soon, promise.

 

Are You Serious?

If you're getting all my pop-culture references in my column sub-headings - you're on the right path!

If you’re getting all my pop-culture references in my column sub-headings – you’re on the right path!

Comics are cool; we get it; which means that 99% of folks who enjoy comics have, at least once, thought about how great it would be to work in comics. For a majority of those folks, it never moves past that fanciful thought; they simply get back to life and move on. For many others, unfortunately, when it does go beyond a mere fancy, it leaps straight to dreams of the big time, giving no thought of how to get there. Everyone wants to create the next “Walking Dead,” but most folks have no real sense of what it takes to do that, or the odds against it happening.

As a professional who runs my own studio, and a professor of comics for non-credit college-level courses, it amazes me how many people express a desire to work in comics, and yet have obviously never seriously considered just what exactly that entails. Chalk it up to the “breaking in” myth we talked about last time, or the challenge many creative types have with being practical, but still…. Yes, it’s comics, not rocket science, but any pursuit you plan to dedicate a majority of your waking life to, and hope to be able to support yourself and possibly a family doing, much less one with such intense competition, is one that you should really come to understand if you plan to pursue it seriously.

I say this, first, as someone who has proven I have that level of commitment and who made it happen for myself, so I know the importance. But I also say it as someone who has had the opportunity to be that gateway for others to start their journeys as professional creators, so I know the importance of those considerations, and how challenging it can be when someone doesn’t.

Beyond raw talent and skill, the next biggest filter most talent scouts and editors use in deciding what aspiring creators are worth the time to invest in, is if those candidates are serious about their intent. I’ve had many promising, talented people approach me at conventions, or via email, show me their work, and tell me their hopes for working in comics. Sometimes, by the second sentence, I can already tell they aren’t taking it seriously, which means no matter how great the portfolio, I’m not interested in working with them, and most likely no one else who knows what they are doing will want to, either. When I hear a stream of serious misconceptions and unrealistic expectations, I know they have no idea what they are getting into and very possibly will disappear as soon as reality sets in.

I’d much rather work with someone whose portfolio is rough, and needs definite improvement, but who shows a strong, well thought-out and intentional plan to pursue a career in comics and is genuinely seeking the kinds of critical feedback they need to grow. Why do you think recruiters for comics use that grooming process I outlined last time? Again, we don’t look for just a spark of talent, but for the makings of a true professional.

Okay, So How Do You Get Serious?

Whether you feel you’ve been serious about it or not, here are some critical first steps to take.

First, Step Back and Check Yourself

bd9936817c2a897faa74038b50191711I think the biggest and most challenging stumbling blocks for many creators are personal issues involving their perceptions of themselves and their work as well as the relationship between the two. I’ve seen it go to both extremes, positive and negative, and neither extreme is going to help you make it.

On the negative side, I know creators who have talent, and could develop the skills to do great work, but because of their low self-esteem, and them seeing any critical feedback as a total rejection of themselves as a person, they aren’t able to handle the process. I feel for those folks because that can be a huge challenge in life, and one that will impact a lot more than just a hopeful comics career. But, the simple fact is that any creator who can’t take criticism, sometimes harsh criticism, and not step back, separate themselves from their work, and take it as an opportunity to push themselves to improve, isn’t going to cut it in the industry.

If you’re one of those who wrestles with this end of the spectrum, the first step is to realize and acknowledge it. The next step may be to focus on that underlying low self-esteem and its causes, then work to realign your relationship with your craft. It can be a big challenge, but an important one on so many fronts.

On the flip side – and these are the folks we in the industry deal with more often because they keep coming back – you get folks who are overly enamored of or invested in their work. They can’t step back from it and put it and themselves in any real context or perspective, sometimes to ridiculous extremes. Yes, I’ve had potential creators present themselves to me as my good fortune they are giving me the shot to work with them, and in doing so, I should pay for everything, all in order for them to develop their ideas into mega-series telling their magnum opus. Seriously?

Now, most aren’t that bad, but yes, I’ve had folks approach me with pretty out there requests. Writers want to write prose or loose outlines for some lowly editor to adapt into a script; artists expect production folks to massage their page art to the right specs, all of whom are genuinely stunned when I say ‘not interested.’ I’ve also had portfolios put in front of me and the second I start offering critical feedback on challenges and areas of weakness, they either zone me out or argue with me. Others I’ve offered to try and help, who, when I send critiques for them to review and incorporate into their work, instead send me new material, as if maybe this round, I will see the perfection in it.

If you truly want a shot at a career in comics, you need to step back from your work and be able to view it objectively. You need to recognize you, more than likely, still have a long way to go in developing your skills and talent and be willing to work on doing just that. If you’re the exception to that rule? We need to tell YOU that, not the other way around.

Second, Step Back and Check Your Expectations

creativity-picture-quote

Yes, there have been creators who have done extremely well and made a lot of money in comics. Yes, there have been plenty of folks who have made full-time careers of comics, working for publishers, selling their own work, etc. But one doesn’t get to the top of those mountains by only focusing on the peak itself.

You need to do some serious reflection on what your goals are in comics. You may also need to step back in order to provide yourself the opportunity to find other goals or to achieve all the goals in between to get there. For example, a writer, or artist who is determined to write or draw the top-selling book from the top publisher, and keeps submitting pitches and portfolios solely for that position, is going to be disappointed, because that’s not how it works. Likewise, any creator who develops their own project and thinks it will surely be the next MEGA success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and getting the movie and TV deals right out the gate, are going to learn otherwise very quickly.

You first need to reach a whole host of goals in between!

These range from very simple, initial goals, like actually learning the process and mechanics of the job itself in order to produce work in the right formats and specs. From there, to actually producing a body of work on your own or with collaborators, all with no pay so that you can get it out there yourself, on a webcomic, blog or copies you print up directly and sell at local shows.

From there working your way up to getting your work published anywhere (other than FedEx Kinkos) and having any company invest anything in your work at all, and by that, I mean working with you, putting their brand on your work, shepherding you, etc. not necessarily paying you money. Most comic publishers do not pay creators unless they are working on properties the publisher owns. Marvel and DC being the most obvious, but smaller companies with in-house properties and licenses also pay creators. But no smaller publisher is going to pay you to produce your creator-owned series, especially if you’re untried in the market.

wake-up-with-determination-go-to-bed-with-satisfaction-wake-up-quote-share-on-facebookPush hard enough, long enough, and you might start getting shorter term gigs on much lower profile books from smaller publishers or studios, or getting out some of your own projects in a finished form, for the digital, or small press markets. Keep pushing, and you might then level up, getting steadier and actual decent paying work, maybe even finally getting your foot in the door at the company of choice, or getting a project that starts building a little buzz, then slowly moving your way up further, to MAYBE finally hitting that peak.

All along the way, you have to work hard on improving your skills, finding multiple opportunities to gain practical experience and training. Hopefully, some of those will include working with those more experienced than you who will push you to up your game. Through it all, you’ll be taking a lot of beatings, disappointments, and stall-outs along the way.

You may even realize, on this particular odyssey, that you want to do something else entirely than what you started out to do. I’ve known plenty of folks who started out wanting that big job with the top two, only to find they really enjoyed the little niche they carved out for themselves along the way. Others I’ve known, and many you can point to in the industry, have reached that goal of working for the big boys, and then decided to leave that to blaze their own trails back in creator-owned.

When I originally thought about getting into comics, I wanted to be a writer for Marvel or DC. Since writers have such a hard time getting noticed, I worked on my art skills, thinking that would be my ticket. Later, I found since I had pretty solid business acumen, I was able to get my foot in the door of the industry by offering management, marketing, and business work to smaller (often desperate) publishers. That then turned into what has become Visionary, my own creative production studio, where I get to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do in comics, on my own terms. It’s been the best possible outcome for my journey, and one I never imagined when I started.

Keeping an open mind, looking for opportunities, and working steadily on improving your comic skills, including some you may not have known you had, will open doors for you moving forward that you would miss otherwise. Stay too focused on one goal, and you will miss a ton of opportunities that may end up being a better fit.

And Then?

Truthfully? Once you’ve gone through the above steps, you may change your mind about working in comics – period! You certainly may change your mind about the specific goals you want to pursue. You may find opportunities you didn’t know existed. Heck, you may even find yourself far more invested, intent, and willing to do what it takes to make it, and now, having a better understanding of what that means, having a better shot at being able to do just that.

This is a good thing; it means you’re seriously coming to terms with your overall goal of working in comics, it means you’re processing the various factors it impacts, and specifically how it will impact your life. It means you’re serious!

NOW DISCUSS…

This week, while you all are waiting for my next pearls of wisdom, feel free to discuss this column. Start doing some serious reflection on your own goals in working in comics, and maybe ways you now realize you need to make some changes. Feel free to share your stories and revelations, and let’s see where it takes us!

NEXT:

Now that we’ve got that out the way, next time we’ll start laying the foundations for this career we’re building. Get practical, real-world resources to help you reach your goals! Right here!

About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Comics, one of the best known comic studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycomics.com!

 

My Comic Life Sundays: Breaking-In and Cons Galore

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Hey all, we’re back. I’ve been on the road a lot with many, many Visionary shows, and it’s thrown the schedule a tad, but we should be consistent from here!

Speaking of shows: we’ve had a great time at shows like Baltimore Comic-Con, Maryland Seafood Festival, and Annapolis Comic-Con this month. And we are live right now at Baltimore Book Festival at the Inner Harbor – in the Geppi’s Comics Pavilion right in front of the Maryland Science Center! We’re here until 7pm this evening, come by and check it out!

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My Comic Life Column 002: The Breaking-In Myth

C. Edward Sellner cropped

As someone who’s been in the industry a while and who now heads up my own studio/digital publisher, you can imagine I’ve come into contact with a LOT of people who are wanting to “break-in” to comics. It’s a phrase we hear a lot, in a lot of different settings. There are books, articles, columns and blogs online about it, and usually a couple of panels at any decent-sized convention focused on it. It’s an entrenched, mainstay phrase about comics, as well as other creative media.

And I hate it.

 

 

 

 

Breaking… Bad

See, I’m a writer; I love words. As a writer, I recognize the power words carry and how they shape our perceptions. Likewise, I know how a bad phrase can seriously misconstrue those perceptions. As Mark Twain said, “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” To me, using the phrase “breaking in” does no one, on either side of the industry, any favors.

When I hear that turn-of-phrase, I think something fast, and then it’s over and done. It sounds like a process that is more an impulse than a thought-out plan. It feels fast and furious; it also sounds final, as if it represents the beginning and ending all in one.

Now, clearly, folks in the know don’t intend for that perception, but I often hear many shades of this mentality from aspiring creators. So it’s apparently at least some of what they hear in that phrase and now, on some level, believe that’s how it is as they seek that elusive magical formula.

005 Breaking In

Not how you Break-in to Marvel…

The truth is NONE of that has much to do with working in comics, on ANY level.

While there may be those who truly “break in”, my guess is you could count them on one hand and still have fingers left over. When there are creators that seem to burst literally onto the scene as full-blown, full-time pros? Chances are there is a large body of work that preceded their “overnight success” that you never heard of, much less read. While every creator has a unique story of how we got where we are today, most all of those stories have common touchstones, common themes that clearly show comics are anything but a “breaking-in” business.

Nevertheless, we foster that mentality in a lot of ways, from our use of the phrase itself to settings that lend themselves to quick reviews and polite feedback instead of in-depth, critical input, all the way down to a skewed media and marketplace that focuses primarily on the upper tiers of our industry. It seems at times as if all the laboring little guys, struggling to make it happen, don’t exist, much less form the vast majority.

Now obviously it’s the responsibility of any aspiring creator who wants to pursue it to learn how truly to go about “breaking- in” to comics. That said, what are the specific elements of the myth that we can dissect and counter with the facts as we better come to understand this process?

companiesThere Is No Simple “IN” or “OUT”

People’s perceptions of what it means to be “in” comics vary tremendously, and those layers of meaning make a huge difference to many other areas of life that often get overlooked.

Am I “in” comics when I make my first comic ever? Yes. Making comics, making sequential art, means you’re a comic creator. It’s a starting point and the only true “breaking-in” point because it fits. A person becomes a comic creator the second they create a comic, even if it’s a single panel doodle. By this definition, I’ve been a creator since about age 5, and started big time, with Superman. Not bad. However, simply creating comics, in itself, is most likely not your ultimate goal, right? If it is, awesome! Go, do, stop wasting your time reading this column and create! (Keep checking back, though, else we’ll miss you!)

For the rest of us, the problem is the second we move past this starting point, defining when someone has “broken in” becomes a lot more complicated. Is it when they’ve produced a complete issue or story? How about when they’re producing comics on a regular basis? Is it once they’ve established a solid fan base? Is it when their first work is published digitally or in print by an actual publisher as opposed to on their own or a vanity press? Is it when they start making any money? Is it when they’re making enough money to cover their costs for making comics? Is it when they are making enough money to support themselves? Is it when they are working full-time in the mainstream industry?

There are folks who would define “breaking-in” to be at any of the above points, and more in between, and none of those points are always inclusive of all the others before it, except mostly for that last one. There are plenty of creators who produce work regularly, or have a solid fanbase, may even be fairly well-known for their work, with books from top publishers, who essentially operate at a loss to produce those books. Or if not, certainly don’t make enough to support themselves, much less a family.

Jim Zub, creator, and writer of Skullkickers and Wayward, has posted a lot of discussion and detail on creator-owned publishing from Image – Check it out here.

Zub

There’s More Small Steps Than Big Breaks

Again, “breaking” gives that image of fast, done and over. A career in comics is much more about taking small steps, one at a time, and then having to push through multiple challenges to take the next small step. That feeling may never quite end no matter how long you’re in the industry. To use another analogy, it’s not a sprint, but a trudging marathon uphill in mud to your knees, carrying a 50-pound pack on your back.

There is no single moment that it all comes together, but lots of smaller moments when you realize you’re making headway. And yes, there are those “big breaks” along the way, but they mostly come to the folks who are steadily taking those small steps, landing them in front of the right connection at the right time, and representing a payoff of long hard work as opposed to strokes of luck or brilliant talent.

Folks who think their first positive portfolio review will mean an instant job, or who think their first paid work automatically means steady work, are in for a surprise because none of that is a given. C.B. Cebulski, perhaps the best-known talent scout in comics, has worked over a decade recruiting talent, and once commented on Twitter that he’s only hired a small handful of artists on the spot.

CebulskiHe also regularly gives AWESOME advice to folks wanting to work in comics – FOLLOW HIM!

At best, creators whose work really makes an impression will usually start a process of grooming that in itself could take months or years. Any decent talent scout or editor will look for much more than just a nice portfolio. First, they will do their research. Has this creator done actual, published comic work? Do they regularly produce new content? Do they conduct themselves professionally online and at conventions? Etc. etc. If what the editor finds hits the right marks, then the creator might be asked to do tryout pages. If the first round is solid, most often, those pages will be returned with comments focused on areas needing improvement and another round will then begin. All the while, the editor will stay up on what that creator is doing elsewhere as well, tracking their progress and growth.

In short, editors are looking for far more than a spark of talent. They are looking for skills, consistency, productivity, professionalism, persistence, growth, and dependability, as well as the ability to work under direction. They test, sometimes for extended periods, before making any offer, which means even getting on the radar usually still means a long road ahead.

The Biggest Break is at Best a Crack

This mindset is something I find even among folks who’ve been in the industry a while, and it is a set of expectations seriously skewed to the reality. Anyone who thinks their first gig for Marvel will be the X-Men, or for DC, Batman, or in fact any ongoing monthly, much less a high profile top seller, hasn’t been paying attention. Creators who get that shot at the big time will first land a short story, or an annual or special, or at best maybe a mini-series, something to “test the waters.” These provide a first opportunity to work together and to show an editor they can deliver. It also provides a gauge of how fans will respond to the creator’s work, with a limited risk investment from the publisher. Once completed, some creators then sit back and wait for the steady work to roll forth, and it doesn’t, which is why many then quickly break right back out of comics.

Visionary_CollageOnce You’re “In, You’re Just Getting Started

I’ve heard it said that as hard as breaking in to comics is, staying in is even harder, and it’s very true. No matter what level of the industry one might reach, falling by the wayside is always a possibility. I’ve known some creators whose work I grew up with and respected tremendously, who now are often struggling to get any paying work in comics at all. Some make a comeback; others don’t. Some move on to other creative fields by choice, others end up taking regular jobs just to get by. Far too many end up being the tragic stories we hear of creators whose work inspired us, who end up spending their golden years in poverty.

I’ve noticed among my circle of professional friends that the ones who keep working the most are the ones who are constantly selling themselves. They’re the ones promoting their work, doing conventions, looking for opportunities, getting their foot in any and every door they can so they can have a variety of options for ongoing work. They recognize the need to have many irons in the fire to keep steady work coming in. They know that you’re not competing once for a career with job security, you don’t get handed the chance to write the X-Men for fifty years then get a gold watch. No instead, you’re competing for every gig you will ever get, often against more experienced, connected, and published creators than yourself, so you best be ready to prove yourself each and every time.

Even once established, chances are, a majority of leads a creator encounters will end up never materializing. A fair number of others will end up being far less than originally promised. Even that elusive ongoing monthly? Well, books get canceled all the time, right? So, it’s important always to have multiple options to help ensure at least one pays off. All of which means it is an ongoing process to “stay” in comics, and one that requires regular effort and attention, and always includes a gamble.

Now That I’ve Burst All Your Bubbles…

Take heart! Because if you’re willing to shift your mindset and change your way of thinking, next week I’m going to start telling you the secrets of NOT BREAKING in, but instead BUILDING UP your comics career. Because if you make the right moves, you will vastly increase your odds of reaching your dreams. You’ll start your first lesson this week – be patient and wait to read the next column. In the meantime, go, soak in Cebulski and Zub, and tell ‘em I sent you.

NOW DISCUSS…

Do you hate me? What was the hardest pill to swallow here? If you’re a comics pro or aspiring talent, share your own experiences. If you can prove me wrong with your story, go for it! If not, what has been the story of your journey? Let’s get some stuff rolling on the conversation front!

About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Comics, one of the best known comic studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycomics.com!

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